Christianity in Korea

Christianity in Korea
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The practice of Christianity in Korea revolves around two of its largest branches, Protestantism and Catholicism, accounting for 8.6 million and 5.1 million members respectively.[1] Roman Catholicism was first introduced during the late Joseon Dynasty period. In 1603, Yi Gwang-jeong, Korean diplomat, returned from Beijing carrying a world atlas and several theological books written by Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit missionary to China.[1] He began disseminating the information in the books and the first seeds of Christianity were sown. In 1758 King Yeongjo of Joseon officially outlawed Catholicism as an evil practice. Roman Catholicism was again introduced in 1785 by Yi Sung-hun. Korean Christians were subject to persecution and hardship but this has not detered believers.[2]

Many were martyred, especially during the Catholic Persecution of 1801 and later, the most famous of whom was Andrew Kim Taegon, who was beheaded in 1846 at the age of 25 for his practice of a foreign religion. The Joseon Dynasty saw the new religion as a subversive influence and persecuted its earliest followers in Korea, culminating in the Catholic Persecution of 1866, in which 8,000 Catholics across the country were killed, including 9 French missionaries. The opening of Korea to the outside world in the following years brought religious toleration for the remaining Catholics and also introduced Protestantism. The first Presbyterian missionary in Korea, Horace Newton Allen, arrived in 1884 and remained in Korea until 1890, by which time he had been joined by many others.[3]

The growth of both was gradual until the middle of the 20th century, when a number of factors encouraged the growth of Christianity in Korea, and its growth since the 1960s has been significant enough that the number of adherents to Christianity surpassed that of adherents to the traditional religions. Today, Protestantism and Roman Catholicism in South Korea face different challenges, with Korean Protestantism struggling with controversy and a declining number of followers,[4] while the Catholic Church in Korea has increased its membership by 70% in the last ten years.[1][5]


Cultural significance

Prior to the Korean War (1950–1953), two-thirds of Korean Christians lived in the North, but most later fled to the South.[2] It is not known exactly how many Christians remain in North Korea today, and there is some uncertainty about the exact number in South Korea. It is known that by the end of the 1960s there were around one million Protestants in South Korea, but during the "Conversion Boom" period ending in the 1980s, the number of Protestants increased faster than in any other country. The 2005 South Korean census showed 29.2 percent of the population as Christian, up from 26.3 percent ten years previously.[6] Presbyterian Churches are the biggest Protestant denominations in South Korea, with close to 20,000 churches affiliated with the two largest Presbyterian denominations in the country.[7]

South Korea provides the world's second largest number of Christian missionaries, surpassed by the United States.[8] GSM, the missionary body of the "Hapdong" General Assembly of Presbyterian Churches of Korea, is the single largest missionary organization in South Korea.[9][10] South Korean missionaries are especially prevalent in 10/40 Window nations that are hostile to Westerners. In 2000, there were 10,646 Protestant South Korean missionaries in 156 countries, along with an undisclosed number of Catholic missionaries. According to an article published in 2004 "South Korea dispatched more than 12,000 missionaries to over 160 countries in comparison to about 46,000 American and 6,000 British missionaries, according to missionary organizations in South Korea and the West".[11] According to an article published in 2007 "Korea has 16,000 missionaries working overseas, second only to the US".[12] In 1980, South Korea sent 93 missionaries and by 2009 it was around 20,000.[13][8][14][15]

Seoul contains 11 of the world's 12 largest Christian congregations.[citation needed] A number of South Korean Christians, including David Yonggi Cho, senior pastor of Yoido Full Gospel Church, have attained worldwide prominence. Rev. Abraham Park Yoon-Sik, Senior Pastor of the Pyungkang Cheil Presbyterian Church (one of the largest Christian churches in South Korea), is the author of the History of Redemption Series of books which have garnered strong praise from theologians worldwide. He is also the co-founder of the Abraham Park Kenneth Vine Collection biblical museum in Seoul. Aaron Tan, director of the Hong Kong architectural firm called Research Architecture Design, described the night scene of Seoul as "full of glowing Christian crosses".[16]

Growth of Christianity


"In the 1960s the church reached out to people who were oppressed, such as prostitutes and new industrial laborers. As the Korean economy was burgeoning, the issue of the industrial labor force came to the fore as one of the most important areas of evangelization work. Churches established industrial chaplaincies among the workers within factories. In addition, with military service mandatory for men in South Korea, the role of the chaplain's corps in the armed forces became equally important. Many soldiers converted to Christianity during their military service."[17]

Academic sympathy

Matteo Ricci's books provoked academic controversy when Yi Gwang-jeong brought them into Korea, and academics remained critical for many years. Early in the 17th century, Yi Su-gwang, a court scholar, and Yu Mong-in, a cabinet minister, wrote highly critical commentaries on Ricci's works, and over the next two centuries academic criticism of Christian beliefs continued. Some scholars, however, were more sympathetic to Christianity. Members of the Silhak (실학; "practical learning") school believed in social structure based on merit rather than birth (see classism), and were therefore often opposed by the mainstream academic establishment.

Silhak scholars saw Christianity as an ideological basis for their beliefs and were therefore attracted to what they saw as the egalitarian values of Christianity.[3] When Christianity was finally established in Korea, there was already a substantial body of educated opinion sympathetic to it, which was crucial to the spread of the Catholic faith in the 1790s.[4] An 1801 study indicated that 55% of all Catholics had family ties to the Silhak school.[5]

Lay leadership

As a result of the influence of the Silhak school, Christianity in Korea began as an indigenous lay movement rather than being imposed by a foreign ecclesiastical hierarchy. The first Catholic prayer-house was founded in 1784 at Pyongyang by Yi Sung-hun, a diplomat who had been baptized in Beijing.[6] In 1786, Yi proceeded to establish a hierarchy of lay-priests.[7] Although the Vatican ruled in 1789 that the appointment of lay-priests violated Canon Law, Christianity was introduced into Korea by indigenous lay-workers, not by foreign prelates. Since Christianity began as largely a grass roots effort in Korea, it spread more quickly through the population than it would if it had originated with outsiders with no initial popular support.

Hangul, literacy and education

Hangul, a phonemic Korean alphabet invented around 1446 by scholars in the court of King Sejong,[8][9] was used little for several centuries because of the perceived cultural superiority of Classical Chinese (a position similar to that of Latin in Europe). However, the Catholic Church became the first Korean organization to officially recognize the value of using Hangul, and Bishop Berneux mandated that all Catholic children be taught to read it.[10][11] Christian literature printed for use in Korea, including that used by the network of schools established by Christian missionaries, mostly used the Korean language and the easily-learned Hangul script. This combination of factors resulted in a rise in the overall literacy rate, and enabled Christian teachings to spread beyond the elite, who mostly used Chinese. As early as the 1780s, portions of the Gospels appeared in Hangul; doctrinal books such as the "Jugyo Yoji" (주교요지) appeared in the 1790s and a Catholic hymnary was printed around 1800.

John Ross, a Scottish Presbyterian missionary in Manchuria, completed his translation of the Bible into Korean in 1887 [18] and Protestant leaders began a mass-circulation effort. In addition, they established the first modern educational institutions in Korea.[12] The Methodist Paichai School for boys was founded in 1885, and the Methodist Ewha School for girls (later to become Ewha Womans University) followed in 1886. These, and similar schools established soon afterwards, helped the expansion of Protestantism among the common people, and Protestants surpassed Catholics as the largest Christian group in Korea. Female literacy rose sharply, since women had previously been excluded from the educational system.[13]

Korean tradition

The spread of Christianity in Korea was aided by the similarity of certain Christian doctrines with a number of Korean traditions. Unlike prevailing Chinese and Japanese religions of the time, shamanist Koreans had a monotheistic concept of a Creator-God,[14] whom they called Hwan-in or Hanal-nim (하날님) (later also Haneul-nim, 하늘님/하느님, or Hana-nim, 하나님). According to an ancient myth, Hwan-in had a son named Hwanung (환웅), who in turn had fathered a human son named Dangun in 2333 BC.[15][16][17] According to the story, Dangun founded the first Korean state and taught his people the elements of civilization during his thousand-year reign.[18] There are several variants of the myth, one of which depicts Dangun as having been mothered by a virgin.[19] Some modern theologians have even attempted to explain the Christian concept of the Trinity in terms of the three divine characters in the Dangun myth.[20] These parallels helped the Korean people's understanding of various Christian teachings, such as the incarnation of Jesus.

Korean nationalism

One of the most important factors leading to widespread acceptance of Christianity in Korea was the identification that many Christians forged with the cause of Korean nationalism during the Japanese occupation (1910–1945). During this period, seven million Koreans were exiled or deported[21] and a systematic campaign of cultural assimilation was attempted. In 1938, even use of the Korean language was prohibited.[22] However, the distinctly Korean nature of the church was reinforced during those years by the allegiance to the nation that was demonstrated by many Christians. While the subsequent constitution of South Korea guarantees freedom of religion as well as separation of church and state, the South Korean government has been favorable to Christianity, regarding the religion as an ideological protection against Communism.

On March 1, 1919, an assembly of 33 religious and professional leaders known as the "March 1 Movement" passed a Declaration of Independence. Although organized by leaders of the Chondogyo religion, 15 of the 33 signatories were Protestants[23], and many of them were imprisoned. Also in 1919, the predominantly Catholic pro-independence movement called "Ulmindan" [24] was founded, and a China-based government-in-exile was at one time led by Syngman Rhee, a Methodist.[25]

Christianity was linked even more with the patriotic cause when Christians refused to participate in worship of the Japanese Emperor, which was required by law in the 1930s.[26][27] Although this refusal was motivated by theological rather than political convictions, the consequent imprisonment of many Christians strongly identified their faith, in the eyes of many Koreans, with the cause of Korean nationalism and resistance to the Japanese occupation.

Minjung theology

The Christian concept of individual worth has found expression in a lengthy struggle for human rights and democracy in Korea. In recent years, this struggle has taken the form of Minjung theology. Minjung theology is based on the "image of God" concept expressed in Genesis 1:26-27, but also incorporates the traditional Korean feeling of han, a word that has no exact English translation, but that denotes a sense of inconsolable pain and utter helplessness. Minjung theology depicts commoners in Korean history as the rightful masters of their own destiny. Two of the country's best known political leaders, Kim Young-sam, a Presbyterian, and Kim Dae-jung, a Roman Catholic, subscribe to Minjung theology.[28] Both men spent decades opposing military governments in South Korea and were frequently imprisoned as a result, and both also served terms as President of the Republic after democracy was restored in 1988.

One manifestation of Minjung theology in the final years of the Park Chung-hee regime (1961–1979) was the rise of several Christian social missions, such as the Catholic Farmers Movement and the Protestant Urban Industrial Mission, which campaigned for better wages and working conditions for laborers. The military government imprisoned many of their leaders because it considered the movement a threat to social stability, and their struggle coincided with a period of unrest which culminated in the assassination of President Park on October 26, 1979,[29].

Social change

Many Korean Christians believe that their values have had a positive effect on various social relationships. Traditional Korean society was hierarchically arranged according to Confucian principles under the semi-divine emperor. Women had no social rights,[30] children were totally subservient to their parents,[31] and individuals had no rights except as defined by the overall social system. This structure was challenged by the Christian teaching that all men are created in the image of God and thus that every individual has essential worth. Closely aligned to this concept is an emphasis on the right to own private property.[32]

Christians regarded the emperor as a mere man who was as much under God's authority as were his subjects,[33] and Christian values favored the social emancipation of women and children.[34][35] The church permitted the remarriage of widows (as taught by the apostle Paul, not traditionally allowed in East Asian societies),[citation needed] prohibited concubinage and polygamy, and forbade cruelty to or desertion of wives.[citation needed] Christian parents were taught to regard their children as gifts from God, and were required to educate them.[36] Arranged child marriages and the neglect of daughters (who were often regarded as less desirable than sons in Asian culture) were prohibited.[citation needed]

Economic growth

South Korea's rapid economic growth in the 1960s and 1970s is usually credited to the policy of export-oriented industrialization led by Park Chung-hee to indigenous cultural values and work ethic, a strong alliance with the United States, and the infusion of foreign capital. Many South Korean Christians view their religion as a factor in the country's dramatic economic growth over the past three decades, believing that its success and prosperity are indications of God's blessing.

A 2003 study by economists Robert J. Barro and Rachel McCleary suggests that societies with high levels of belief in heaven and high levels of church attendance exhibit high rates of economic growth.[19] Barro and McCleary's model has been influential in subsequent scholarship and, to some observers, it supports the belief that Christianity has played a major role in South Korea's economic success.[20][21] The study has been criticised by scholars such as Durlauf, Kortellos and Tan (2006).[22] There is a tendency to build megachurches since 2000, that leads some churches to financial debt.[23]

Political issues

There have been various political criticisms in the Korean Christian scene since President Lee Myung-bak came into power. The South Korean government proposed to restrict South Korean citizens working for missionary works in the Middle East.[24] Professor Son Bong-ho of Goshin University criticized the president for partaking in a national-level Christian prayers' gathering on March 2011 that signaled a potential danger of the strong Protestant influence in the secular South Korean politics.[25]

Former Mayor of Seoul, Oh Se-hoon, proposed a referendum in Seoul on August 24th, 2011. Pastors of multiple churches in Seoul were found to involve unlawfully with the lay people about the referendum and later being penalized by the Seoul Metropolitan election Commission (서울시선거관리위원회).[26]

See also


Numbered references

  1. ^ a b
  2. ^ Evangelical Missions Quarterly – Persecution: A Biblical and Personal Reflection
  3. ^ Kim, Sang-Hwan (1996). The impact of early Presbyterian missionary preaching (1884-1920) on the preaching of the Korean church (M.A. thesis) Wilfrid Laurier University
  4. ^ Number of Christians among young Koreans decreases by 5% per year[dead link]
  5. ^
  6. ^ figures from the 2005 census Figures from the 1995 census
  7. ^,
  8. ^ a b
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^
  12. ^ Jeffreys, Daniel (2007-08-04). "South Korea turns against 'arrogant' Christian hostages". The Independent (London). 
  13. ^
  14. ^
  15. ^
  16. ^ Kim (김), Su-han (수한) (2011-03-25). "세계적인 건축가 아론 탄 "서울 야경은 십자가예요"" (in Korean). Hereld Biz. Retrieved 2011-04-17. 
  17. ^ Gelder, Craig Van (2007-11-15). The missional church in context: Helping congregations develop contextual ministry. ISBN 9780802845672. 
  18. ^ John Ross (1842-1915), Scottish Presbyterian Missionary in Manchuria
  19. ^
  20. ^
  21. ^ Lee, Felicia R. (2004-01-31). "Faith Can Enrich More Than the Soul". The New York Times. 
  22. ^
  23. ^ Ahn (안), Seong-mo (성모) (2011-07-08). "빚 내서 몸 키우는 한국 대형 교회들" (in Korean). SisaJournal. Retrieved 2011-08-03. 
  24. ^ '중동 선교활동' 여권법 개정 논란
  25. ^ Park (박), Gwang-hui (광희) (2011-03-11). "[직격 인터뷰] 손봉호 교수 "정치인들, 개신교 편 들지 말라"" (in Korean). Hankook Ilbo. Retrieved 2011-03-30. 
  26. ^ 대형교회 목사 등 주민투표법 위반 조사 (종합) 2011-08-23 Yonhap News
  1. ^ Patrick Johnstone and Jason Mandryk, Operation World, Carlisle, Cumbria, and Waynesboro, GA., 2001, pp. 387–390.
  2. ^ CHOI Suk-woo, 'Korean Catholicism Yesterday and Today', Korean Journal XXIV, 8, August 1984, p. 4.
  3. ^ KIM Han-sik, 'The Influence of Christianity', Korean Journal XXIII, 12, December 1983, p. 5.
  4. ^ Ibid., pp. 6–7.
  5. ^ Ibid., p. 6.
  6. ^ KIM Ok-hy, 'Women in the History of Catholicism in Korea', Korean Journal XXIV, 8, August 1984, p. 30.
  7. ^ CHOI Suk-Woo, pp. 5–6.
  8. ^ National Unification Board, The Identity of the Korean People, Seoul, 1983, pp. 132–136.
  9. ^ Seoul International Publishing House, Focus on Korea, Korean History, Seoul, 1983, pp. 7–8.
  10. ^ Seoul International Publishing House, Focus on Korea, Korean History, Seoul, 1983, pp. 7–8.
  11. ^ The Identity of the Korean People, pp. 132–136.
  12. ^ Ilyon, tr. HA Tae-hung and Grafton K. Minz, Samguk Yusa, Seoul 1972, pp. 32–33.
  13. ^ Marguerite Johnson, 'The Culture', in Pico Iyer (ed.) 'An Ancient Nation on the Eve of a Modern Spectacle: SOUTH KOREA', Time CXXXII, 10, 5 September 1988, p. 48.
  14. ^ Ibid., p. 48.
  15. ^ Focus on Korea, pp. 7–8.
  16. ^ CHO Kwang, 'The Meaning of Catholicism in Korean History', Korean Journal XXIV, 8, August 1984, pp. 20–21.
  17. ^ Colin Whittaker, Korea Miracle, Eastbourne, 1988, p. 133.
  18. ^ Andrew C. Nah, A Panorama of 5000 Years: Korean History, Seoul, 1983, p. 81.
  19. ^ Whittaker, p. 62.
  20. ^ Ibid., p. 65.
  21. ^ Ibid., p. 63.
  22. ^ CHOI Suk-woo, p. 10.
  23. ^ Encyclopedia Americana, Vol. 23, Danbury, Conn., 1988, p. 464.
  24. ^ CHO Kwang, p. 11.
  25. ^ Whittaker, p. 65.
  26. ^ Merit Students Encyclopedia, Vol. 10, New York and London, 1980, p. 440.
  27. ^ Whittaker, p. 34.
  28. ^ CHO Kwang, pp. 20–21.
  29. ^ Whittaker, p. 40.
  30. ^ KIM Ok-hy, p. 34.
  31. ^ CHO Kwang, pp. 16–18.
  32. ^ Ibid., pp. 18–19.
  33. ^ KIM Han-sik, pp. 11–12.
  34. ^ CHOI Suk-woo, p. 7.
  35. ^ CHO Kwang, pp. 16–18.
  36. ^ Ibid., pp. 18–19.
  37. ^ Ibid., pp. 16–19.
  38. ^ Michael Lee, 'Korean Churches Pursue Social and Political Justice', in Brian Heavy (Ed.), Accent III, 3 Auckland, May 1988, pp. 19–20.
  39. ^ Kessing's Contemporary Archives, London, 25 April 1980, p. 30216.
  40. ^ J. Earnest Fisher, Pioneers of Modern Korea, Seoul, 1977, pp. 65–74.


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